Little Century

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In the tradition of such classics as My Ántonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey's Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.

Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, she's met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called ...

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In the tradition of such classics as My Ántonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey's Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.

Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, she's met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called Half-a-Mind, and there she begins her new life as a homesteader. If she can hold out for five years, the land will join Pick's already impressive spread.

But Esther discovers that this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a range war. There's plenty of land, but somehow it is not enough for the ranchers--it's cattle against sheep, with water at a premium. In this charged climate, small incidents of violence swiftly escalate, and Esther finds her sympathies divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, a sworn enemy of the cattle ranchers. As her feelings for Ben and for her land grow, she begins to see she can't be loyal to both.

Little Century maps our country's cutthroat legacy of dispossession and greed, even as it celebrates the ecstatic visions of what America could become.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Newly orphaned by her mother, 18-year-old Esther Chambers leaves bustling nineteenth century Chicago to head for the untamed frontiers of Oregon. Her only contact there is her distant cousin, cattle rancher Ferris Pickett. Meeting "Pick" places this innocent young woman on the edges of an escalating range war between local shepherds and cattlemen, thus forcing her eventually to choose between her watchful protector and handsome sheep farmer Ben Cruff. Of this debut novel, one early reader writes, "In spare, luminous prose, Keesey perfectly conjures the textures, the characters and the urgency of life....."

From the Publisher
Little Century . . . is rendered vividly through fluid and restrained prose, solid plotting and a keen eye for detail . . . Keesey, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, treads [her] territory competently, imbuing her characters with palpable motives, rich contradictions and fully realized pasts. She also stays atop the rising action of the story, upping the stakes for her characters and the town of Century as she herds us efficiently toward the conclusion. At the same time, she knows not to hurry readers along without letting them soak up the atmosphere. The real star of the novel is Oregon’s high desert, a vast, quiet plain Keesey captures in many of its dynamic moods, in language ranging from the plainspoken to the elegant . . . [Keesey’s] language serves the story admirably, rarely crossing the line into the self-conscious, the sentimental or the flashy. In short, Keesey is a sentence writer in control of her craft. She’s a storyteller who stays out of her own way.” —Jonathan Evison, The New York Times Book Review

Ambitious . . . Accomplished . . . [Keesey’s] words are clear as lake water . . . [The] plot works easily and well, but the real joys of the book are the set pieces showing town life and Esther’s almost unnoticed passage into womanhood. There’s a church dance, effortlessly drawn, and a couple of sermons, boring and portentous, and scenes of Esther learning to ride and plant and plow, and a perfect little scene of Esther and a friend helping a little girl jump rope . . . ‘Tender’ is a word Keesey uses again and again to describe her characters. She mothers them, cares about them like children, wants to protect them from the hell they have been so intent upon making. She persuades the reader to cherish them, as well.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post

[A] briskly romantic, nontraditional Western . . . It’s Willa Cather with a sense of humor . . . Keesey portrays her men and women as deeply flawed but so achingly vulnerable that it is impossible not to identify with them.” —Liza Nelson, O: The Oprah Magazine

There’s not a single sentence in this novel that reads like it took hard work. The characters, sprung from another time, living in a place as removed as another planet, come to life on the page, and all their flaws feel as consistent and true as the flaws of our dearest loved ones in this work of near perfection.” —Elizabeth Word Gutting, The Rumpus

Keesey writes lyrically and examines the ferocity of frontier life with an unromantic and penetrating voice.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Highly entertaining reading. First novelist Keesey has produced a top-notch novel of Western Americana.” —Keddy Ann Outlaw, Library Journal (starred review)

Confidently energetic . . . While Keesey offers a variety of characters with intriguing stories of their own, it is the richly depicted setting—from desert to dry good store—that showcases her talent.” —Publishers Weekly

“Here is a fine novel, written with grace, about the settling of Oregon and the evening redness in the West. The desert town of Century is about to consume itself with greed and vengeance when a young orphan from Chicago shows up with a moral clarity that outstrips her age, to remind us that character matters, and that justice is pursuant to conscience. Little Century is a frontier saga, a love story, and an epic of many small pleasures.” —Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End

“ ‘One place understood helps us understand all other places better,’ Eudora Welty once said, and such is the case in this outstanding debut. Anna Keesey renders Little Century’s time and place marvelously, but the novel’s concerns are timeless and universal. With its beautiful language, memorable characters, and compelling story, Little Century is sure to gain a wide and appreciative audience.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena

“This is a beautiful and completely absorbing book. In spare, luminous prose, Anna Keesey perfectly conjures the textures, characters, and urgency of life in Century. I read it at a gallop, and didn’t want it to end.” —Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles

Little Century is rich and true and achingly beautiful. Its heroine, Esther Chambers, is the kind found in the best classic literature: an innocent caught against the backdrop of escalating violence whose essential goodness and loyalty shine through the savagery around her.” —Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter

In this novel of stunning beauty, Anna Keesey gives us the American West at the turn of the century, and a cast of unforgettable characters who will risk anything to tame it. Oregon’s hardscrabble frontier comes utterly alive for us in prose so lovely, spot-on, and accomplished that I found myself dog-earing nearly every page. An incredible debut—and a writer to watch.” —Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“Anna Keesey conjures her Western landscape of ranches and homesteads with painterly richness, but it’s her uncanny historical imagination that really takes the breath away. Her characters pulse with life; their times feel as immediate, as urgent and vital, as our own.” —Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl

Historical fiction at its finest—precise and particular in detail, character, and setting, yet vast and epic in scope and theme. Little Century is a remarkable achievement.” —Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948

Library Journal
In the year 1900, at age 18, newly orphaned Esther Chambers leaves Chicago for the high desert of Oregon. Her distant cousin, a cattle rancher named Pick, steers her into claiming a homestead adjoining his land. He assures her that eventually he will buy it from her. At first Esther feels lonely and alienated, but once she gets to know her cousin and their neighbors in the small town of Century, she feels more at home. She learns to ride a horse and takes up typewriting and typesetting. Although Esther tries to stay out if it, she is swept up in escalating tensions between the cattle ranchers and sheep farmers. With an eye toward marriage, Pick begins to appreciate Esther's amicable intelligence. But Esther has started to care for one of the young sheep farmers. Then a murder turns the town inside out. VERDICT How Esther perseveres and finds her place among the buckaroos and an assortment of oddball settlers makes for highly entertaining reading. First novelist Keesey has produced a top-notch novel of Western Americana.—Keddy Ann Outlaw, formerly with Harris Cty. P.L., Houston, TX
Kirkus Reviews
The title refers to a little town in the midst of the vastness of Oregon, where at the turn of the 20th century, sheepmen and cattlemen vie for grazing territory as well as for the love of 18-year-old Esther Chambers. Recently orphaned, Esther travels from Chicago in search of Ferris "Pick" Pickett, a distant relative about 10 years older than she is. Pick is friendly but taciturn, and he takes her out to Half-a-Mind, a property that had recently been abandoned by a farmer. Through Pick, Esther finds out that if she can live in Half-a-Mind at least six months out of the year for five years, she can claim it as her own, so she begins to homestead. Esther quickly discovers that much of the conflict out West lies in the hatred between cattlemen and sheepmen, for they're constantly fighting about who has the rights to free rangeland. At first the tension emerges as petty violence--windows broken by slingshots--but it soon escalates to a much more serious level with hooded cattlemen driving hundreds of sheep over a bluff to their deaths and a retaliatory action in which a prize bull is beheaded. Amidst this growing violence Esther finds herself attracted to Pick, cautious spokesperson for the cattlemen, and Ben Cruff, a sheepman who almost by definition is hostile to the cattle ranchers. Keesey introduces us to a large cast of Oregonians here, including Joe Peaslee, whose apparent suicide might have actually been murder; Violet Fowler, a postmistress whose snoopiness leads her to open any interesting letter that comes her way; and Mr. Elliot, of the Far West Navigation and Railway, who's investigating the possibility of establishing a spur line to Century and thus ensuring its continued economic viability. Keesey writes lyrically and examines the ferocity of frontier life with an unromantic and penetrating gaze.
The New York Times Book Review
There are staples we've come to expect in the American frontier novel…Mishandled, these western standbys can seem like threadbare, dime-­novel clichés. Handled deftly, these conventions are the stuff of American myth…While Anna Keesey's first novel…may walk a well-worn path, the familiar is rendered vividly through fluid and restrained prose, solid plotting and a keen eye for detail…Keesey…treads this familiar territory competently, imbuing her characters with palpable motives, rich contradictions and fully realized pasts. She also stays atop the rising action of the story, upping the stakes for her characters and the town of Century as she herds us efficiently toward the conclusion. At the same time, she knows not to hurry readers along without letting them soak up the atmosphere.
—Jonathan Evison
The Washington Post
Keesey's writing is so accomplished and easy-seeming…Her words are clear as lake water…"Tender" is a word Keesey uses again and again to describe her characters. She mothers them, cares about them like children, wants to protect them from the hell they have been so intent upon making. She persuades the reader to cherish them, as well.
—Carolyn See
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374192044
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/5/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Anna Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and has held residencies at MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and Provincetown. Keesey teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt




THOUGH SHE WOULD NOT HAVE ADMITTED to any fixed expectation, Esther is still confounded by what meets her at the end of her journey. The hands at the Two Forks ranch, it appears, can be called boys or fellows by Pick, or buckaroos by Vincent, but not cowboys, except in fun. They are not boys, anyway. They are laboring men in flannel shirts and leather vests and boots worn down at the heels. They have brown necks and cheeks that look chapped, as if they have employed shingles to scrape away their beards. They may be strong—they must be, if they direct cattle about—but they don’t seem very likely. They are lackadaisical, on Esther’s first morning in the high desert, at the task of fitting boards over the windows of the Two Forks house, which have been shattered by vandals.

“Buckaroos don’t like to do anything excepting to ride and to wrangle,” says Vincent, who helps run the ranch. “They want to act like they never seen a hammer. And of course they’d rather take out after those sheepmen and separate them from their slingshots. It’s a dull job to clean up when you want to hit back. But Pick works them, and they do what he says.”

Last evening, at the end of her four-day journey to Oregon, in the windy winter dusk, she was greeted by destruction. As Vincent drove the wagon into the yard after a cold and dusty trip from the train station, she saw no welcome party arrayed on the steps, but lamps swinging, the yellow beams crossing into and out of the stripes of light coming from the house, and a number of bare-chested men kicking glass with their boots. She held her valise on her lap and hugged it. Disorder? All right. But damage, ill will? Bad neighbors? She had not imagined this when she decided to come west.

And now, despite hours of grateful sleep after the discomfort of the train, the morning seems no more promising. Esther pulls her coat around her and sits down on the bitter iron of a wagon tongue. Before her are miles of gray plain roughened with brush, rising into a blurred olive band of vegetation and other bands of smoke and slate blue too far away to be consequential. And beyond these the three rocky peaks Vincent calls the Sisters array themselves in robes of ice. Esther has never imagined a land so fruitless. Under snow is thin, silky dirt, and under that, rock so rough it catches the leather sole of one’s shoe. It is eerie rock; it has flowed from inside the earth through some unnatural crevice, blackening the landscape like Hades’s chariot. The shrubs are plentiful yet parsimonious, flexible but dry. Here and there, like scarecrows with giant heads, windmills brood over the plain.

Vincent hands her a cup of coffee, and the heat feels good through her gloves. She thanks him and tastes it. Bitter, manly, and scalding, not like tea. “What did you mean just then, about sheepmen?”

“Herders and owners of sheep. Not so many around here as cattle, but there’s some.”

“But why would sheepherders break your windows?”

“Don’t care for a cattleman.”

“Oh.” She’s embarrassed to say she doesn’t understand, but he sees this and comes to her aid.

“Pick leads the way around here in keeping sheep off what’s cattle ground.”

“Do they try to come onto his ranch? Isn’t that trespassing?”

“Well, that land ain’t legally part of Two Forks. Most of this desert around here belongs to the U.S. government. But McKinley don’t give much of a damn, and since cattlemen’s taxes been nursing this town along for years, it’s just fair we get first crack at the open grazing. Last week Pick had the buckaroos mark out some territory by burning what they call deadlines on the trees up there in those hills. Bunch a sheep came up there—local stockman named Brookie Duncan runs ’em—and the buckaroos chased ’em all down, shooting and hollering and scaring the bejesus out of the herder boys. He takes a large pull of coffee, and shakes his head. Maybe it wasn’t that nice. But you give them boys a penny and you’ll be out a dollar.”

And the shepherds responded by breaking the windows. “But why slingshots?” she asks.

“Can’t waste the ammunition to shoot out a window, they’re too poor. And they don’t really want to hurt anybody. I don’t think they do. Well, they’re not likely to get much of a rise out of your cousin. Ferris Pickett’s nothing if he ain’t cool.”

She’s perplexed, a little thrilled, by these doings, but she hopes the sheepherders have vented their annoyance and won’t come back. Pick, her cousin, does seem cool. He will make sure everyone behaves, certainly. His house alone is a testament to his competence and certitude; it is by far the largest place she has ever lived in. Inside, the wallpapers and carpets are scarlet and blue, almost royal, and the furniture is rich and polished. Outside the house is broad and formal, with massive front doors, a dark mansard roof, and bright white paint. Above the veranda runs an abbreviated balcony with an iron railing, like baroque black lace. But for the large metal windmill twirling beside it, this house would look suitable commanding a large lawn with redbuds and lilacs in one of the better areas of Chicago. Even with three of its large windows cracked or shattered, it is impressive, even haughty, as if it has mustered itself out of the dust and then been surprised by the humble neighborhood.

Vincent follows her gaze. “Pick built it a while back, when he was young. Well, younger. He’s thirty now. He wouldn’t go for so much gewgaw anymore, now that he’s grown. Say now—” He gestures east with his bearded chin. “That claim of yours is a pretty property. It sits on a lake, most of the time.”

She pictures a piece of land rising and flying away from its lake like a magic carpet. “Most of the time?”

“It’s a playa lake. It’s not there all year. Comes and goes, so they call it Half-a-Mind. You can water stock all spring at Half-a-Mind, but come August, you’re sure to go begging. There’s a place to stay, though. Miller built a cabin on the claim before he absquatulated.”

“I’ll live there all the time, then? That is—all the time?”

“Now, that depends on what you mean by live. You’re supposed to spend six months of nights there and grow a crop. But the law don’t say you have to eat or keep your clothes there.”

“I don’t think I know how to grow anything. Except marigolds.”

“Oh, I’ll show you. Anyway, you can eat with Pick and me and the boys. You’re only a mile away.”

A mile! And not a cable car anywhere. She ventures, “I saw there weren’t any ladies at breakfast.”

“Hah! Nope.”

“You aren’t married?”

“Me? Nope.”

“Isn’t Pick married?”

“We’re not much good at marrying at Two Forks. Maybe it’s a problem with the well.” He laughs. “No, sir, you’re the first female we’ve convinced to stay with us for long.”

For long? Someone has been and gone, then. But she never imagined that there would be no women on her cousin’s ranch; it had not occurred to her. For most of her life she has known mostly women and girls. Her mother, her school friends and teachers, and her mother’s friends. But there is a town here, somewhere. There will be—well, people.

Pick, tall and soft of footfall, appears behind them, resettling his hat on his fair hair. “You’re ready,” he says to Esther. “Good. We’ll go over to the claim.”

“Better take a sidearm against you got a jumper in the shack,” says Vincent. “Nobody’s been in there since Miller lit out.”

*   *   *

Yesterday, after collecting her at the station up in Peterson, Pick took her to a parlor at a nearby boardinghouse. She was given hard-boiled eggs, toast, and tea, an odd lunch, like something served to lady convicts. While she began, with great self-consciousness, to peel an egg, Pick said, “You’re older than I thought. What are you, nineteen? Twenty?” This observation was neither friendly nor otherwise.

“I’m eighteen.” Had he not read her letters?

“Well, you’re taller than most girls. Maybe that’s it.”

“I was almost always the tallest at school. People asked me to reach for things.”

He nodded.

“And I suppose wearing mourning makes everyone look older.”

“I guess that’s so.”

She tried again. “At the station just now, I wasn’t sure who you were, if you were my cousin or not.”

One of his cheeks rounded and tightened, and he gave a sideways laugh. He had many wrinkles around his eyes, though he was young. “Who did you think I was?”

Having just taken a bite of egg, she put her fingers over her mouth. “You didn’t say.”

“Did you think some other man might be looking for you at Peterson depot on the fifth of January? I’m Ferris Pickett, all right. But I’m called Pick.”

Pick. It sounded like the name of a man who took care of stables or shined shoes. She would learn to use it, though. When in Rome, her mother would have said, raising an eyebrow, unless the Romans are scoundrels. He wore a blue shirt and dark, pointed boots, but his riveted trousers were work beaten. His brow was broad, and pale where his hat shaded it—she had already seen this in men on the train, nut-tanned faces with porcelain brows—and his eyes were light and set far apart under brows that slanted down and outward, suggesting the faintest anxiety. If he had a beard with his golden mustache, he would look a good deal like Ulysses S. Grant.

When her mother died a few months ago, leaving her alone in the world, Esther wrote to this distant cousin on her father’s side who raised livestock near Peterson in the middle of Oregon. As far as she knew, he was the only living person related to her. His letter back to her was brief.

I can’t offer you any work to speak of unless you can wrangle a cow but it’s an up and coming town and maybe you’d like the change. We’ve got plenty of room in the house and plenty outside it.

Since Esther’s home was the rented second floor of an apartment house off Damen Avenue in central Chicago, the only cows she’d ever known were those bawling and stinking behind the barricades at the stockyards, and one particular enemy who had stepped on her foot at a county fair when she was a little girl. But like other eighteen-year-old persons, she was not averse to the sweeping decision or the dramatic gesture, and she had always admired Nelly Bly, the newspaperwoman who had gone around the world in every manner of conveyance. Now that her mother was gone, to go away had for Esther the allure it often does for the terribly hurt. Cow wrangling, certainly, certainly—though if her cousin required her to count pins or skin monkeys, she would have been ready to accept that as well.

Assurances had been offered, of course: whosoever believeth shall never die, and so on. Yet when Esther sat in church with her mother’s friends and associates, she looked not at the jeweled figures in windows lit by the winter sunshine, but at the cracks between the stones of the floor. As she looked, they seemed to grow larger, into nooks and caves that might easily hide her dead: the baby brother who had arrived blue and winded and stayed only four months, the thin papa with the white mustache whose heart slowed, crawled, and could not begin again, and now her mother. The cracks were cold and deep. Couldn’t she slide in there with their poor bodies and be dead? But that afternoon she boarded the streetcar back to the apartment she’d shared with her mother, where some sheets were hastily thrown over the furniture, and took out her mother’s book of addresses and found him.

As she drank her tea, Pick rubbed at his jaw, as though he felt something there under the skin. “And since you seem to have survived the crossing, you must still be Esther. You had a long ride, didn’t you? Did you feel a little dull, cooped up all that time?”

She nodded.

“I guess there wasn’t much for you at home, was there? Not much to stick around for?”

It was true. Her mother was gone. She died one morning in August while Esther read a book and ironed a dress. Flu had weakened her, but she died of a stroke. A stroke, as one would make with a pen. “Your mother must have been very tired,” said the doctor. “Some people are susceptible to events of the brain.” Never again would Esther see her wise brown eyes or the wary smile that lit them, often for nothing, often only because Esther was talking. This glint of sympathy from Pick pushed tears into her eyes, and she had to clamp down on all feeling, as though stuffing an animal into a box. “Oh—well. I did want a change. As you said.”

“You’ve had a hard time. But this is a good country for someone alone. We’re all equal out here, and everyone makes his own luck.” Her mind tried to grasp this. Could luck be made? “No one cares if you’re poor or crippled or an Indian or an orphan. As long as you can do some work and be a decent neighbor, you’ll get ahead. In fact—listen, Esther. I’ve got an idea.”

She put down the egg.

“It has to do with fooling someone who deserves like the devil to be fooled. Maybe you played at pretending not so long ago. You ever try to fool someone?”

“Now and then, I suppose.” Once, at the Lake Michigan shore, she had floated on her stomach and pretended to be drowned. While she floated there, it suddenly came to her what a terrible thing she was doing to her mother. She was relieved when she surfaced, spluttering and paddling, to see that her mother had been not in the least taken in. From the shore she looked at Esther, stretched, and made an elaborate dumb show of yawning.

“Well, down the street is the land office, where people claim homesteads, and in it there sits a little clerk who wants shaking up. He’s drunk on his duties, to speak poetically—I don’t mean actually drunk. But he’s got all the maps and the stamps and the ink he can play with, and he enjoys himself. If we pull the wool over his eyes, we’ll have a good joke to take back with us to Century.”


“That’s our town.”

“Oh—this isn’t our town?”

“We’ve still got a bit to go to reach Century, and then a little more to Two Forks. A couple of hours, it’ll take in the buggy. Shorter if you’re riding. What do you say, Esther?” he asked, smiling. This smile was cheeky, mischievous, though the impression arose from the high placement of his neat, pointed eyeteeth and he may have been unaware of it himself. “Feel like helping out your old cousin?”

He wanted her help to conspire against a bully. Nelly Bly would leap at such a chance. She smiled back. “If I can.”

*   *   *

The land office was empty of people but full of business. It was a high, narrow shop fitted with shelves on each wall, full of official reports and stacks of papers, the highest reached by rolling ladder. Filling the lower shelves were great leather-bound books, much larger than usual, stamped with gold lettering and frilly with the edges of pages. On a table sat a broad map box that, with its stack of drawers and gleaming veneer, would look grand and official if there weren’t sleeping on top of it a fat little dog with protuberant eyelids. The dog’s lips twitched as it dreamed.

“Wilbur, where are you?” called Pick toward the back room.

Behind the curtain there was silence, then a neat, tripping step, like a goat. A shadow clawed at the muslin and then became a clerk who presented himself at the counter. He was towheaded and sulky and had crumbs on his cheek. “Pickett,” he said.

“My cousin would like to file on a homestead. Esther Chambers, Wilbur Grist.”

Mr. Grist stood still for a moment, looking at Pick. Then he reached out and shook hands with Esther.

“I think you know the quarter section she wants,” said Pick.

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Miller’s spot near Half-a-Mind.”

“Is that the one you want?” Mr. Grist asked Esther.


“Well, it’s the only piece left with water on it east of the mountains. As no doubt you know. Miller just gave it up for good a week ago. Of course, he’s been gone some time to Prineville. After he lost those oats, he had to look for work. His wife’s working in the hotel. Not the nicest place for a woman.”

Pick said, “Perhaps Esther will do better. She’s a smart young lady.”

“That I don’t doubt,” said Mr. Grist. He brushed the crumbs from his cheek. “You do know you’ve got to spend six months a year on the place for five years?”

“Five years.”

“Yes. You do know that?”

She didn’t know it. But she tried to look authoritative, undeterred, and she blundered ahead. “Oh, yes.”

“It’s a long time. Longer if you’re young, if you understand me.”

Pick patted Esther’s arm and shrugged. “Well, it’s not as bad as all that. If she gets tired of it, she can turn it back to you, Grist. Or buy it, of course.”

Relief rushed over her, but Mr. Grist was still skeptical, as though determined to disapprove of Pick. “At a dollar and twenty-five cents an acre? What have you got here, Pickett, an heiress?”

“Nothing like. Are you, Esther?”

“No!” She had a bankbook, of course. Perhaps a half year’s worth of money, if she didn’t have to buy her lodging. Her mother’s furniture, hers now, stored in a Chicago warehouse.

“Either way, when you get a deed to some land, then you’ve got something.” Pick’s tone was uninflected.

Mr. Grist went to a rolltop desk and took a ledger from it. The desk was shiny with varnish, and he paused to rub a smudge off the wood with his shirtsleeve. He carried the ledger back to the counter and opened it. “What was your date and place of birth?”

She had rehearsed this part, on the street. “On the twelfth of November, eighteen seventy-eight, in Chicago, Illinois.”

“… Chicago, Illinois,” said Mr. Grist as he wrote.

“She’s an orphan, Wilbur. She doesn’t have proof.”

Mr. Grist laid down his pen. “Pickett.”


“She’ll have to swear.”

“She’s prepared to swear.”

With a sigh Mr. Grist took a Bible off a stack of books and dropped it in front of Esther on the counter. It was black, the leather faintly pebbled, the edges of the translucent pages a powdery red. She put her hand on it. She had never sworn to anything before. There was a little wheezing noise. The dog had woken and was panting, his popped eyes giving him a look of pathetic surprise.

“Twenty-one years of age?” asked Mr. Grist. The dog hacked and slobbered. Mr. Grist put down his pen and went to it. “Tut, Nick. What’s in your throat?”

“I don’t think I can,” Esther said to Pick softly.

“Well, you don’t have to. It’s asking a lot on short acquaintance, I know. But I’ll get you out of it right quick.” He was undemanding, relaxed, even playful. He closed one eye slowly, a parody of a wink, and she smiled.

Mr. Grist was running a finger around the inside of the dog’s mouth, which seemed to calm it. Now he turned back. “He gets a bit choked up on his own hair sometimes. Ready, miss?”

“Yes,” said Esther. She wiped her hand on her coat and placed it on the Bible.

“Speak up?”

She cleared her throat. This was a new place, and a new life. Who knew what risks might be required?

“Twenty-one,” she said.

“Sign here.”

Esther. Chambers.

*   *   *

At the livery stable Pick retrieved Vincent, an old man with a long beard that was crimped as though he’d been sleeping on it. Esther had never seen such a beard, yellow-white, like ancient linens in a forgotten closet. Vincent was pleased to meet Esther, he said, he surely was. Horses were brought out and hitched to a buggy, and Pick helped Esther onto the front seat next to Vincent. He himself rode a saddle horse called Lobo, a large russet animal with a deliberate gait and a bright white star between its eyes. He led the way back to the station, where they claimed Esther’s trunk and valise. When he had remounted his horse, he came alongside Esther, his face thoughtful in the shadow of the hat.

“Now, remember what I said. You can just hold that claim down until I get the jack together to buy it. A couple of months, maybe. That way no one else can sneak it out from under us.” Vincent watched Pick and combed his beard with his hand. “Vince, she took Miller’s claim.”

“I did gather that,” Vincent said, nodding. “Glad she got it.”

In a rush she said, “I want to help.”

“You are helping,” Pick said. “I appreciate it. And I understand it might disturb you a little, not to follow the letter of the law. Nobody really likes it. But out here there’s laws and then there’s laws. This is a strange sort of country. Some think it’s devilish. They say it won’t provide. It won’t provide roses and strawberries, that’s for sure. It’s for independent folk. And if you want to be independent in the high desert, there’re things you’ve got to do.”

“I understand. I do. And thank you for inviting me,” she said. “You didn’t have to.”

“Well, what goes around comes around. And you’re grown, aren’t you?” He cocked his head, eyes amused. “It’s not like adopting a baby in diapers.”


Copyright © 2012 by Anna Keesey

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Anna Keesey, Author of Little Century
How would you best summarize Little Century?
I'd say this: In the juniper and sagebrush desert of Central Oregon, in the year 1900, a recently-orphaned girl of eighteen arrives in the town of Century to visit a distant cousin, a cattle rancher. Though she's astonished by the austerity of the landscape, and would like to flee home to Chicago, the girl, Esther, stays on, partly because her cousin Pick has inveigled her into taking a homestead claim under false pretenses, and she feels she has to keep her promise to him. But she soon sees that the town is in the grips of a range war—a competition between cattle people and sheep people for grazing land and water—and as the belligerent factions become more open and more violent in their competition, she becomes as embroiled in the economic, political, and romantic complexities of Century as any of the natives. The hostilities become the fire in which her adult self—her ethics, loyalties, loves, and vocation—are forged.
When did you first come up with the idea for the book?
I had messed around with a few ideas for stories set in the high desert, blundering up various pathways and having to retreat because I was essentially still thinking as a short story writer, which was of course the only thing I'd done before. In that form you sometimes need relatively little plot, and the lyric movement, or the movement of the consciousness of a character, can shape the story. At some point, in reading about the history of Central Oregon, I read an account of a famous 1904 case that appeared to be connected to an ongoing conflict between sheep and cattle folks over grazing opportunities, in which a storekeeper disappeared and was later found dead out on the range. It was unclear what exactly had happened, whether it was a murder or a suicide, and if murder, who the culprit, and what the motive. That little mystery, that long-gone gap in the historical record, seeded the book. I just wanted to go into that world, and imagine not what DID happen, but what COULD have happened—making that COULD a version that was full of currents and properties and details that held particular resonance for me. It's world-building, like what a speculative fiction writer does. I suppose all historical fiction—if not all fiction—is speculative fiction, and I felt myself totally enlivened, imaginatively, by that opportunity for speculation.
Please tell me about the high desert where the novel is set. What drew you to it as a setting for your novel?
If you've ever been anywhere in the Great Basin of the west, you know some of the radical, hot , demanding beauty I'm describing. But one of the things that's so amazing about Oregon's peninsula of Great Basin, the central and south eastern part of the state, is that it's so different from the western part, the Pacific Ocean side of the Cascades. That's the Oregon of the stories, the rain-soaked fertile territory that drew the initial settlers who farmed and logged. And that's where I grew up, in the wet Willamette Valley, where as my grandmother used to say, you can stick anything in the ground and it will grow. But when I was a kid my father used to take us east across the Cascades to go skiing, and I was always weirdly stirred by the golden dryness and spicy smell and hairy straight Ponderosa pines and spiky juniper. I was accustomed to bronchial-looking oaks dripping seafoam-colored oak moss, and big dark wet droopy Doug fir. I just always felt the desert was a kind of magical place. I'm not the only one, of course. It's become rather... richly populated.
Your main character Esther Chambers is at a major turning point in her life. How much do you identify with Esther, or how much of yourself did you write into her?
Wow. That's hard to answer. She undergoes a kind of brutal maturation that all adolescents go through, which I certainly remember and identify with, in which they move from the relatively protected space of childhood into responsibility, perception, and risk. Not that all children have protected childhoods, because of course they don't, but there's a kind of fluidity, a protection from full consciousness, that children have, and have to relinquish, for the pleasures and sorrows of adulthood. In the book, Esther makes the better part of this transition in the space of one year—it takes most of us a lot longer to put it all together, to become a self we recognize as continuous and integrated. I have a strong memory of feeling like I had to figure everything out on my own, without asking questions, and of being embarrassed and full of self-loathing when I was at a loss, and she has some of that. I identify with Esther's loneliness, certainly, and her receptivity to children and animals and funky eccentric people, all of whom I myself find consoling. I have her built physically quite a bit like me—that may be the telling fact—tall and broad-shouldered and light-haired. But she's less talkative than I am, and more disciplined and meticulous. I would never have the patience to do what she does in the novel—repairing mistakes on a typed page with little bits of paper!
Little Century takes place at the beginning of the 20th century—what kind of research did you do about the period in order to tell this story?
I'd read a number of 19th-century and early 20th century novels and memoirs, and with a bit of historical reading as well, it's not too hard to get a snapshot of that gilded age, turn-of-the-century America. I read a lot of old newspapers—the Oregonian and various small-town Oregon papers—and looked at lots of photographs of old Oregon. I did a lot of reading on a need-to-know basis—that is, I needed to know who the Native Americans were who originally lived in Central Oregon, and where they were at the turn of the century, and how one operated a printing press, and what kind of typewriters were available, and when Robert Louis Stevenson's poems were published in the United States and so on. It's kind of a drag sometimes. Early on I had assigned Esther a particular typewriter sold at the time, with a name that was thematically useful to me: "The National." Through many drafts of the book it was called The National. Then, as I was checking on something else, I realized that the National was actually configured such that the typist could not SEE the words typed—one had to lift up the carriage to check. And that would not work for my purposes in Esther's typing scenes. That was one of the places where the fiction writer in me rode rough over the historian and I was like, "Screw it! I'll make up my own brand of typewriter!"
While it's a historical novel, Little Century is also very relevant to our present because it is in part about the uglier side of American enterprise. Could you talk a little bit about this aspect of the novel?Sure. It was certainly on my mind, because I was writing the book mostly during the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, and I was extremely troubled by what struck me as imperialism and self-righteousness and transgression against individuals in name of a larger cause. I was worried about corporate control of the media, about the simplistic "othering" of the "enemy," and the kind of coercion and exploitation—and worse—being done in the name of democracy. I mean—extraordinary rendition? Really? I was sweating it out for democracy—still am—and that flows into the book, repeatedly, in the form of the tiny but morally significant tensions in the town of Century. It wasn't so different from now, in 1900. There were plutocrats and robber barons and a wide income gap, and there were ill-advised foreign wars characterized by jingoism. One of the pleasures of the research was reading some of Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writing on the Philippine-American War, which was really a disgrace as far as I can see (though I'm no expert), and which Twain rejected in very powerful words. He was a very smart, humane guy, and he knew a misuse of American power when he saw it, and the profound connection between that misuse and corporate interests. After our recent economic crisis, it seems pretty clear that the profit motive, untempered by personal ethics or at least regulation, is a toxin. It makes people delusional, and crappy things happen. I know I felt I was referring to that force in the book, though it may not be readily apparent to all readers.
Who have you discovered lately?
I'm really playing catch-up with my reading because I've been working full-time as a college professor for years, and writing a book and raising a little boy, none of which leaves a lot of time for reading. But this summer, for the first time in years, I'm not writing a book, nor do I have a kid in diapers! I just had the pleasure of reading Madeline Miller's novel, The Song of Achilles, and I found it so absorbing and lovely that I rue having to wait a while until she can write the next thing. I also just flinched my way, with great speed, through Gillian Flynn's hilarious and scary Gone Girl. I've read some historical stuff recently—Mary Hallock Foote's memoir, some writings of the Oregon suffragette Abigail Scott Duniway, and Timothy Egan's book about the Forest Service, The Big Burn. I've been rereading some Alice Munro and W.G. Sebald, always astonishing, both, and I've been repeatedly returning to Christian Wiman's collection of poems, Every Riven Thing, which I think is gorgeous. In the past year I was completely knocked out by Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. I'm looking forward to the next book from a number of writers I really admire—novelist John Brandon, poet Averill Curdy, and the estimable, inventive Peter Ho Davies. Sometimes I look at all these folks and think, Gee whiz, how do people write that well? What river did they drink from as children, because I want to go bathe in it!

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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss the setting of frontier Oregon as if it were a character: Is it seductive, comforting, dangerous? How does Esther's perception of it change throughout the novel?

2. What did Esther's mother teach her about survival? How did being raised by a woman affect Esther's sense of self?

3. When Pick takes Esther to Mr. Grist so that she can claim the homestead near Half-a-Mind, what do his actions say about the history of America's expansion in the Pacific Northwest, and about humanity's approach to natural resources such as water?

4. What motivates Pick to be a rancher? Is he in it for the power or is he simply attached to the land? What separates him from the buckaroos? How is his relationship to the land different from Esther's or Ben's?

5. How is Esther shaped by her talent as a woman of words: a diary writer, typist, typesetter, court reporter, journalist?

6. What gives Jane and Violet authority in their community? What did Jane's secret past predict about her future? Ultimately, were her actions heroic or shameful?

7. Would you have chosen Pick or Ben? Discuss the differences between rancher and shepherd as they play out in Little Century.

8. How is the story line affected by the major events of the time period, especially the railroad expansion and America's intervention in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War? How do these events reflect the greed that spurs Century's range war?

9. How do Esther's memories of Chicago compare with her life on the frontier? What freedoms and constraints does she experience in each place?

10. Is Delores's ancestry the sole reason Pick rejects her and Marguerite? How does Esther help him understand his place in Delores and Marguerite's world?

11. The novel's animals--sheep, horses, and cats in particular--play important roles. How do their needs and instincts compare with those of humans?

12. Why is Esther concerned enough--even more so than the coroner--to uncover the truth about Joe's death?

13. The author writes of the "net of cousins" comprising all creatures, in which friend and foe, hunter and hunted, are ultimately related. What prevents humanity from functioning as a generous, vast family?

14. Discuss the closing images of Esther: What were her greatest sources of fulfillment in life?

Reading group guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2012

    Outstanding writing

    What a pleasure to come across a novel that has both an engaging plot and powerful writing too! This historical fiction about the range wars of the Oregon plains is also a coming of age story revealed through the perspective of the young, naive Esther from Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. Recommended.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 18, 2012

    Wonderful Read

    Delightful prose, excellent story telling.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2012


    I read a lot. I have learned that a writer's style of writing and story line are like a leopard and his spots - they never change. This book suffers from a poor style of writing as well as a shallow and predictable story line. My suggestion, save your money because i feel i wasted mine. Very disappointing book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2013


    Another liberal author trying to teach us how to think.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2012

    Incredible. Please write more. And this needs to be made in to

    Incredible. Please write more. And this needs to be made in to a movie!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2013

    Half and half

    Sometimes good...sometimes boring

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2013

    It's very compelling, well written and grounded in accurate hist

    It's very compelling, well written and grounded in accurate history. The metaphors are sharp and arresting. My only criticism is that there are two many metaphors and they interfere with the storyline by drawing attention to the writing.  
    Also, I think Abigail Scott Duniway would not have been mocked in central Oregon by having a horse named after her - maybe in Portland but not in central Oregon where she lived for so long. That's'
     just my opinion though.  I am certainly recommending this book to others. 

    History Geek living in Central Oregon and giving tours on Oregon's history

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    Would not recommend

    Boring. No point. Not worth the effort.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2012

    Fabulous - beautifully written

    I looked forward to reading this every day and didn't want it to end!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2012

    Excellent beautiful and worth it!


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    Posted January 2, 2013

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    Posted March 6, 2013

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    Posted October 13, 2012

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    Posted July 29, 2012

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